SXSW 2019: Local Gov Data Scientists Vital for 2020 Census

As the federal government prepares for its inaugural tech-first census, stakes are high for local leaders. Experts say targeted campaigns to combat misinformation and civic technologists will also be essential.

by / March 9, 2019
"Out for the Count 2019: How to Repair the Broken 2020 Census" at SXSW 2019. From left to right: Denice Ross, fellow-in-residence at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University; Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariz.; and Jeff Meisel, a data fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — The U.S. government is preparing for its first online census, which will, as always, have vast consequences for local government tied to the accuracy of data they use to govern and the amount of funding allocated to departments like health and public safety.

During the “Out for the Count 2019: How to Repair the Broken 2020 Census” panel Saturday at South by Southwest, experts discussed ways that local government — as well as volunteer technologists — can help ensure the process will yield an accurate count. First and foremost, they stressed that it was vital to make sure residents know why responding to the U.S. census is important.

Why the Census Matters

There is an estimated $600 billion of federal funding at stake, and an accurate count of all citizens and their ages is needed to ensure it is distributed fairly. Also, the census is what generates population and demographic data that local governments rely on to provide services and execute data-driven governance, which increases civic efficiency and drives down costs.

“If you have an undercount, that’s a problem in perpetuity for the next 10 years,” said Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariz., who was one of the panelists, stressing how important census data is to decision-making. “We want to make good decisions. If you’re putting garbage in, you’ll be getting garbage out.”

What’s also worth noting is that the census is a fraught and challenging undertaking under the best circumstances, and this year is certainly not that. For the first time, the federal government is conducting a digital-first census, relying on online methodologies to do the work. This presents problems both in training census volunteers and in reaching populations on the wrong side of the digital divide, which are inherently also populations that under-respond to the census.  

Another issue, said panelist Denice Ross, a fellow-in-residence at Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, is that the same misinformation campaigns that targeted the 2016 presidential election will likely be applied again here, in part because the census has the power to add or take away congressional seats. Ross described the census as as important to our democracy as any election.

“We can’t do this again,” Ross said. “We need to figure out the world has changed. People don’t read their mail anymore, and the concept of a household count is a little outdated. So, how do we modernize the census?”

So the question became, what can municipal leaders as well as concerned citizens do to ensure every resident of their jurisdiction is counted in the upcoming census?

How Data Scientists Can Help the Census

Perhaps the easiest and most actionable thing that local leaders can do now is invite their data scientists, as well as GIS personnel within city hall, to any and all census preparation meetings. Mayor Giles said Mesa is already doing that, describing data scientists as “the most important people in our organization right now.”

It’s also imperative for local leaders to work with technologists and other volunteers outside of government.

“One thing techies can do that I think is really helpful is helping government and the nonprofit sector identify those gems of tools that can supercharge census efforts,” Ross said.

Across the country, there are already groups working on everything from spreading information about the census to creating tools to logistically aid the count. Two of these groups are Civis Analytics and Community Connect, both of whom have created digital tools to help with census.

The federal government has also created opportunity.census.gov, which fosters six-week sprints. Interested parties can sign up now to be notified of when the next sprint begins.

Federal Policy Impacts Census Participation

Meanwhile, there are also events at the federal level interfering with community trust in the Census. Under the Obama administration, the government encouraged individuals brought to the United States as children without lawful immigration status to register for protection. President Trump has imperiled the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act that was put in place to protect them. This has sent roiling trust issues throughout immigrant communities.

At a separate panel dubbed “Big Data and Innovations for Marginalized Groups," Jeff Reichman of January Advisors pointed out that the U.S. has “a long and sordid” history of using census data to violate trust, citing how Japanese immigrants were put in camps during WWII.

“These are cerebral arguments and we’re making that argument to someone who’s basing their decisions off of fear,” Reichman said.

Jeff Meisel, senior fellow at UC Berkely in the division of data sciences, said there are two key things local leaders need to think about now. The first is to start outreach aimed at spreading accurate information and fostering trust, by April at the latest. Key to the trust issues is deputizing extant community groups and actors.

“Bring in those advocacy groups, the folks who can help tell those stories to their peers, to their neighbors, about why the census matters,” Meisel said.

The next piece of advice Meisel offered brought the conversation again back to data. He said he and collaborators would soon be announcing a new project called Let’s Make It Count, intended to deliver a data curriculum to school children in kindergarten through 12th grade across the country. The goal is to make sure educational systems understand the importance of telling students how the census affects our community’s futures, which has the simultaneous benefit of potentially interesting young people in data science careers.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.